“When people believe in boundaries, they become a part of them,” a character says at one point in “Sparrows Dance,” which clearly serve as words to live by for its writer/director Noah Buschel.
There are just two characters on one set in Buschel’s follow-up to the Michael Shannon-Amy Ryan underseen detective story “The Missing Person,” and yet in telling the spare story of a young woman (Marin Ireland) who sequesters herself to a small New York flat after experiencing a debilitating fear of the outside world, the filmmaker is able to create a rather grand romance. The woman is never given a name, but doesn’t really need one since she’s taken leave of society with her only form of contact being anonymous calls for Chinese takeout. She doesn’t even open the door to pick up her scallion pancakes and vegetable fried rice directly from the delivery guy, instead leaving a $20 just outside her door, so as to not let anyone see her battle with the nervous tics and twitches she’s prone to. She is, however, forced to eventually unbolt those five locks on her door for a plumber named Wes (Paul Sparks) when a rusty pipe causes her toilet to overflow.
While Wes is able to put a stop to the running water, he is less capable of not running his mouth, his chattiness getting the best of the young agoraphobic ultimately in more ways than one, nudging her towards inviting him in for a first date. From there, Wes takes it as a challenge to win the woman over or at least coax her back outside. Yet as much of a challenge as that may be, it is Buschel who has the more difficult task of keeping this delicate valentine afloat, acknowledging the moment once that door opens by throwing down the gauntlet with a clever twist on a traditional movie element that shouldn’t be spoiled here and continues to break rules of film convention without piercing the heart of the truly tender love story that unfolds before his camera.
Ironically, “Sparrows Dance” isn’t a film for the timid. With two exceptionally vivid performances from Ireland and Sparks, who both fiercely charge towards the limits of extreme characters without either overplaying them, the film could run on their repartee alone. But one imagines it could easily play with the sound off as well since Buschel and cinematographer Ryan Samul offer a master class in lighting to evoke the mood with so little other space to operate in, seguing gracefully from the frigid daylight that accompanies the woman’s mechanical motions of a routine consisting of exercise and slouching on the couch to watch TV to the evenings where the darkness could either become her embrace or make her feel even more alone. Such a viewing of it would leave the film bereft of its soulful hits of jazz, played in part because of Wes’ side career as a musician, or the beauty of the dialogue that floats in the air between the woman and Wes as they begin to feel each other out.
Then again, the real beauty of “Sparrows Dance” is seeing all the artifice of its movie trappings fall away, a construction that Buschel asks the audience to confront directly in a slow dance scene that reminds us all at once of the both the fiction and the fact that magic can exist onscreen. Similar to the divide between the reality the woman can simulate in her apartment or experience outside, the choice to indulge in one versus the other becomes ours and we’re rewarded accordingly.